Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What You Don't Know

Several years and a couple of jobs ago, I frequently worked with the general manager of the microcontroller division of the company I worked for. While I'm glad I didn't ever work directly for him, I didn't care for his management style, I learned an awful lot from him.

Among the things I learned was not to be in an unnatural hurry to make a decision or to reach a conclusion. Sure, if you have a deadline looming, you have to decide, but to do this prematurely wasn't usually a good idea.

Rather, he said, take the problem or situation and turn it over and over. Look at it from every side and try to slice it every way you can. You might now find the "answer" you were looking for, but you might find something else perhaps even more valuable: understanding.

Take every nugget of information you have with a grain of salt. Every fact should be held as tentative, as there is always another shoe that may drop.

When you have to make a decision, go ahead and use the best information you have available to you at the time, just be aware that what you think of as the truth might change and it may be helpful if your plans are flexible enough to change as well.

A friend sent me an article from which I've posted an exerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article. It's a pretty good read.

For the Chief, a Little Skepticism Can Go a Long Way

A NEIGHBOR of mine has eyes in the back of her head. Sometimes she can tell without looking that her children are doing something off limits — eating cookies just before dinner, shedding backpacks on the kitchen floor — and she tells them to stop without even turning around.

It’s a handy little skill for a parent. But for managers and corporate leaders, it is essential to be able to see problems lying just out of sight.

If leaders “don’t look at things a little skeptically, they can find themselves in trouble,” said Jay Lorsch, a professor of human relations at Harvard Business School.

Senior executives and directors “have got to be able to smell the smoke,” he added. “They have to have a certain level of cynicism and skepticism.”

Or as Andrew S. Grove, the former chief executive of Intel, put it in the title of one of his books, “Only the Paranoid Survive.”

Unfortunately, there are a host of reasons that leaders do not necessarily get all the information they need.

Simple human nature is part of the problem: No one likes to hear bad news, no matter how useful it may be. Managers who appear to blame the messengers bringing word of, say, poor sales or a competitor’s inroads, can easily discourage future reports.

Niko Canner, the managing partner of Katzenbach Partners, a consulting firm based in New York, said that when an employee comes to him with news of actual or potential problems, “I try to deal with bad news in a way that I get more of it rather than less.”

That entails thanking his informant, then discussing ways to resolve the problem and — as a final step — setting aside time in the future to discuss how the problem started. That way, the people delivering bad news realize that they will not be punished for their candor.

Even when top executives vow to be accessible, though, it can be a challenge for subordinates to reach them.

A top executive might say that “I’m very clear that I have an open-door policy,” said Craig Chappelew, a senior manager at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. “But for me to even get in, I have to get past the front desk, get a badge, and get past two levels of administrative assistants. I think they confuse open-door policy with interpersonal approachability.”

In a leadership skills assessment that Mr. Chappelew has given to nearly 1,000 top executives and hundreds of their company directors and subordinates, most of the executives rated their interpersonal skills highly. But those who reported directly to them rated them as only average in that area.

The executives also rated themselves as adept at strategic planning, but their company directors saw that as an area where the executives were also not very strong.

“From two perspectives, these senior executives are missing the boat,” Mr. Chappelew said.

In some cases, very senior executives are just too far removed from day-to-day operations to see developing problems. Exhibit A: financial executives who have been blindsided by mortgage-related problems at their companies.

Some senior executives also believe too ardently in their company’s long-term projects — complex new technologies, for example, or drugs in development — to see their flaws.

And in certain situations, executives may not realize that their onetime confidants have either clammed up or have taken sides, and thus will convey little or none of the bad news the executives would benefit from hearing.

Clearly, leaders who wait for bad news to come their way are taking a major risk. That’s why some leaders regularly seek out news, both good and bad.

Lew Frankfort, chief executive of Coach, the leather and accessories company, is unrelenting when it comes to monitoring company operations.

The company spends close to $5 million on consumer research annually. When Mr. Frankfort arrives at work each morning, there is a sales report for each North American store waiting on his desk. He receives reports on worldwide sales every week, and he and his senior executives reassess each unit’s business outlook monthly.

He says he runs the business on what he calls an “exception” basis: “To the extent that there is a significant variation better or worse than expected, we drill in to understand that.”

MR. FRANKFORT says he is also “a big advocate of management by walking around.” He visits stores once or twice a week, introducing himself to customers only as Lew. And he has questions lobbed at him at regular lunch forums focused on broad topics like business development and growth opportunities.

1 comment:

Rick Matz said...